Last month commemorated 70 years since the passing of a giant of English literature, George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair).
Orwell was a man of contradictions who never seemed to fit in anywhere. Born in India in 1903, into a “lower-upper-middle-class” family, Orwell grew up in the English shires, was educated at Eton yet was shot in the neck fighting for socialism. He then curiously became famous for his critique of the Soviet Union and Stalin in Animal Farm.
His writing seems to be driven by a deep desire for fairness and a relentless pursuit of the truth, and his willingness to criticise those who abuse power and language, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, made his allies feel uneasy and his enemies squirm.
Indeed, Animal Farm was initially banned from publication for politically expedient reasons in World War II (at the time, Stalin’s USSR was a useful ally in defeating Hitler and criticism was censored in the suspended democracy of war-time Britain, a situation Orwell despised). These contradictions and hypocrisies, along with experiencing first-hand the bitter betrayals and cynical use of propaganda in the multifaceted Spanish Civil War (Orwell fought with renegade anti-Stalinist Marxist group the P.O.U.M, that was later repressed and outlawed by the Spanish Communist Party), certainly contributed to the overall themes in Animal Farm and 1984. Ironically in the 1960s, over a decade after Orwell’s death, Animal Farm was challenged in some parts of the USA for being a “problem book” with ‘communist text’ for using such language as “masses will revolt.”
Orwell’s determination to tell the detailed, complicated truth and inform the reader using simple, layman’s language stands in contrast to much of today’s shallow political discourse and ‘journalism’, which deliberately misinforms, and is arguably often used to protect the status quo rather than attempt to expose the truth. It must be said these problems of course existed in Orwell’s day, but are they better, or worse now? Orwell’s writing can at least help us find out, as although he died 70 years ago, the clarity of his writing is more important than ever.
Although the dystopian totalitarian Britain of 1984 did not come to pass, one must wonder what Orwell would make of the country and wider world today. Even though I have an aversion to people (often wrongly, in my opinion) ventriloquizing his views for their own agenda, I expect much of it will fill him with horror. Orwell remains relevant because we can still understand the world with his words, which have changed literature forever. What would he make of government institutions like GCHQ’s illegal mass surveillance of UK citizens, and of social media giants harvesting data and selling our privacy, all with our apparent consent? The telescreens in 1984 are now not necessarily on the wall, but in our pockets, with the ability to listen, photograph and video our private lives. And whilst Big Brother may not order us what to do, algorithms made by corporate giants manipulate how we interpret the world on social media which is awash with so much ‘fake news’ it can manipulate elections and referendums. The language of 1984 can also easily describe any authoritarian ‘communist’ regime that exists today: “the party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the socialist movement originally ever stood, and it does so in the name of socialism”. 1984 can perhaps also explain the seemingly endless wars Western countries are entangled in in the Middle East: “The war, therefore if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture… It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that the hierarchical society needs… The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.”
Although mostly well-known for his novels, he was also a prolific writer of essays, literary critiques, reportage and even poetry. Beyond politics, he also enjoyed writing about nature in his diaries, and in 1946 wrote the essay Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. Orwell also dabbled in food writing; 1945’s In Defence of English Cooking led him to be commissioned a year later by the British Council to write an essay on British food to promote relations abroad. He described British cuisine as “a simple, rather heavy, perhaps slightly barbarous diet” where “hot drinks are acceptable at most hours of the day”. Further writing in 1946 instilled Orwell’s quintessential Englishness: that year he wrote an essay entitled ‘A Nice Cup of Tea’, within which he lays out an 11-point plan for making the perfect cuppa (yes, you really should put the milk in last).
David, Brompton Library